What is it to review a collection of essays written by someone you’ve admired your entire adult life? I keep copies of some of Helen Garner’s books, among others, on a shelf above the desk where I write. I open them often to see how she does it.
The first time I read Garner I was sixteen. It was The Children’s Bach for my Year Twelve Literature class. My copy of the slim book still bears my tentative pencil underlinings; stars in the margins. The next was Monkey Grip, the pocket-sized, age-worn copy my mother had read and re-read. I don’t remember what came after that. Cosmo Cosmolino up the back of a too-warm lecture theatre at university, a Japanese professor patiently decoding a complicated reading passage on a generation of migrants who sought work cutting sugarcane in Brazil. Joe Cinque’s Consolation in a hospital bed. Honour and Other People’s Children on a regional bus.
Being a quick reader means I try not to be too greedy with books I love. This is rarely truer than when I read Garner, whose forensic understanding of the sentence make her paragraphs an illusorily clean and easy read.
When I say easy, I don’t mean facile, or digestible, or unremarkable. I mean easy in the same way as I do when I watch Serena Williams effortlessly thump an ace down the court, or Warren Ellis draw songs from his violin. I mean writing where the drudgery is invisible. I mean work where the labour and skill are made to seem like nothing at all. The very passage excerpted on the back of Everywhere I Look, though, is telling:
Every day I work on the edit of my book. I slog away, shifting chunks of material and moving them back, eating my salad in a daze, wondering if the linking passages I’ve written are leading me up a garden path, or are sentimental, or violate some unarticulated moral and technical code I’ve signed up to and feel trapped in or obliged to. The sheer bloody labour of writing. No one but another writer understands it – the heaving about of great boulders into a stable arrangement so that you can bound up them and plant your little flag at the very top.
This mastery, like Williams’s or Ellis’s, is not accidental or lucky. It is the result of years of toil and uncertainty. “The sheer bloody labour of writing” is reassuring because it reminds me that easy is deceptive.
I read the first pages of this collection of non-fiction pieces in a tent at a music festival. “Listen to this,” I keep saying to the friend who is reclining beside me, interrupting her reading. The perfect opening lines: “Last week I had my hair cut. I was pleased, in the limited way one dares to be at this age.” The essay on her mother, heartbreaking but unsentimental: “She was on a short leash. I don’t recall thinking that this would be my fate, or resolving to avoid it. All I remember is the picture of her life, and the speechless desolation that filled me.” Any number of brief, skilful portraits: “The architecture of Rosie Batty’s face may be monumental, but the air around it is so clear that one can ask her anything.”
I read the last pages on Good Friday, sitting on the back deck of a beach shack. Long sundown hour, blanket over my knees, dog at my feet. ‘The Insults of Age’ I remembered from a year or so ago. It was circulated among the more tech-savvy of my older women friends on Facebook with grim nods of appreciation. I might have torn it out from The Monthly and sent it to my Nan, whose indignant voice I recognised. ‘In the Wings’ I’d never read before – a beautiful and surprising choice of a piece to conclude the book in which Garner watches a series of rehearsals for Swan Lake. It’s beguiling to read her account of these elite ballet dancers, her wonderment at their perfection, the way they make their technically brilliant and complicated work seem effortless. “Full of a joy that transcends words,” she writes, and yet she captures this ecstasy with her characteristic precision and clarity.
‘Punishing Karen’ offers a brief sketch of a teenager on trial for killing her newborn baby. The young woman is observed by Garner’s astute journalistic eye, but equally with tenderness and empathy. I read the essay in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. I happen to be writing a rather difficult short story about infanticide, and I arrive at this piece with a sort of guilty serendipity. It’s a Saturday morning; cold, peaceful. The receptionist’s radio is playing ‘Tequila Sunrise’. A man across the room gives the occasional phlegmy cough. Beside me, a woman holds a baby in her arms. She’s watching her other child, a little boy, fit Duplo blocks into a tall unsteady tower. He counts them breathlessly.
“Twenty-four,” he announces. “There are homes in there.”
His mother smiles. “It’s an apartment building, is it?”
The baby in her arms wears a blue knitted cardigan and a stream of clear dribble. He begins to list toward me. He reaches a fat hand for my hair, beaming. (This happens often. Despite not being particularly maternal, I’m a weird magnet for babies and toddlers on trains, in cafés, in supermarkets. It’s as if they can sense a challenge when we make eye contact.) The dissonance is overwhelming: the charming baby, leaning so close now I can feel the warmth of his little body; the book in my lap – “she had struck the baby several times in the head, intending to kill him, for she did not want to keep him.”
The baby flops against my shoulder. The mother gives a gentle, apologetic smile and heaves him back onto her knee. I close the book in case she sees the words. I’m not sure why I care. Perhaps some murky part of me recognises infanticide is not a sociable topic. Some pages later, in the piece entitled ‘On Darkness’, this unease is explained to me. “I’m interested in apparently ordinary people,” Garner writes, “who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.” Plenty of us are fascinated by human ugliness. It is Garner’s ability to frame it so shrewdly, but without appearing voyeuristic or moralising, that sets her apart.
A few months ago I started in my first nine-to-five job. I like to work through my lunch hour, and take my break later in the afternoon, when everything is quieter. I walk to a café in the backstreets of South Melbourne with my book. After twenty minutes or so, a woman sits down at the table next to mine. We are in a dusty, sunny space under the window. I stop reading and listen idly as the woman makes conversation with the waitress. I recognise her voice, and sure enough, when I cast a furtive glance sideways, it’s a friend of my mother’s. I touch her arm. I say her name, and she says mine delightedly. She asks what I’m reading. I show her the cover. “You’ve always been a great defender of her work, haven’t you,” she says. “What is it about her?” Her tone is not one of disagreement. She’s indulging me, giving me permission to speak about something dear. And in this instant, I’m forced to summarise—hastily, clumsily—what I love about Garner’s writing. “There’s a great tenderness for everyone,” I start. “I admire her cleanness, that precision, but it’s more to do with how she witnesses people without judging them. It’s honest work.” The friend smiles, the conversation turns, my break is almost finished.
I’m walking back to work when it arrives, that flash of what-I-wish-I’d said. I want to rush back to the café and explain my love for Garner’s sentences. What I meant to say was very plain – easy, even: she teaches me how to write again.